This Labor Day, debate is heating up over traditional assumptions about modern work. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many are wondering: “Do we really need offices?” “Who said 9 to 5 were the ideal working hours?” and “If we’re able to work wherever and whenever we want, can’t we get our work done in less than 40 hours a week?”
These questions are being explored in publications from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal. While Scripture doesn’t give specific answers, it does give three principles that will help us engage the pressing issues of work and time.
1. The gospel compels us to work hard.
God never works halfheartedly. For six days, he was engaged in “the work of creating” (Gen. 2:3). It wasn’t until “the seventh day he rested” (Gen. 2:2). And then he commanded us to mimic his rhythm of work and rest: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:9–10).
God never works halfheartedly.
When the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, we saw God at work again. The Gospel of Mark tells us Jesus was so busy that he and his disciples weren’t even able to eat (Mark 3:20). One time, the disciples tried to convince Jesus to call it a day. His reply: “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” (John 11:9).
This theme of hard work continues through the New Testament. Paul in particular often exhorted his readers to “work heartily as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). While we are saved not by works, we are saved for them (Eph. 2:8–10). In other words, part of our response to the gospel is to work. Hard.
Part of our response to the gospel is to work. Hard.
There’s an important nuance here. Just because the gospel compels us to work hard doesn’t necessarily mean we should all spend six days a week at the office. Why? Because God doesn’t define work the way we often do, as “the thing we are paid to do.” His definition appears to be much broader, so much so that Exodus 20:10 says even animals work.
A more biblical way to define work, then, would be by what it’s not: it is the opposite of leisure and rest. Thus, our work includes what we do for pay as well as doing laundry, mowing grass, preparing dinner, and doing homework. An understanding of this is critical as we discern how much is too much “work” in a given week.
2. The gospel compels us to spend more time with our colleagues, not less.
Reports on whether productivity is up or down due to the pandemic are all over the map. But one argument I’ve heard runs like this: by working from home, we’ve now proven we can do more in less time. Thus, if we have to go back into an office, we should get in, get our work done, and get home to our families as quickly as possible.
I get the logic (and some of the appeal) of this argument. But it fails to remember that our workplaces are one of, if not the, primary place where most of us build relationships with lost people. So our aim shouldn’t be to “get in and get out” of the office.
For the sake of the gospel, we should be the ones looking for opportunities to spend more time with our colleagues, not less.
3. The gospel compels us to rest.
Yes, the gospel should compel us to work hard, and to look for ways to spend more time with unbelieving colleagues. But we must also recognize that God has designed natural limits to the time we spend at the office—a fact the scientific community realizes.
Stanford professor Dr. John Pencavel found that “employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour workweek, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours—so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours.” In other words, spending too much time at the office can be terribly unproductive.
God has designed natural limits to the time we can spend at the office.
Not only is rest the natural and productive thing to do, it is also good for our souls. Taking time for rest reminds us of the truth of the gospel: we can’t earn our salvation—no matter how hard we work—and must rest in Christ’s work on our behalf. When we pause our notifications and take a day off from the office, we acknowledge that what we have comes from the Lord, a gift freely given.
The debate over where, when, and how long to work is sure to continue in the coming months and years. Amid the debate, I pray we will keep these three truths in view as stewards of our time, for God’s glory and the good of others.